In 1973, Ursula K. Le Guin published a short story, called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” She describes in flowery language a sort of utopian city (Omelas) in which every inhabitant lives in utmost happiness, wealth, contentment and joy. Every person enjoys unparalleled success, health, and all the benefits of social progress…except one person.
In a basement, you see, there is a child that lives in absolute squalor and abuse. No, more—the child must live in horrible conditions in order for all others to live in paradise:
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that is has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
When I walk past homeless people on a city street, I think on this story. When I see my friends suffer from ridiculous poverty, working themselves to exhaustion for incredibly low wages while the owners of the restaurants or shops for whom they work enjoy things by “right” of ownership, I think on the happiness of Le Guin’s fictional city.
I’ve found myself giving a lot of time to uprooting accepted truths about the world I live in. In my early 20’s, as an idealistic queer anarchist punk, I attacked these inherited “laws of nature” with great zeal, but now (apparently) in my late 30’s, I’ve begun to understand how very deep and tenacious those untrue beliefs really lie beneath the soil and rock of my soul.
The worst of these? For someone to have, another must not.
What is this place into which we born, this world not fully of our own making? I entered life on land recently stolen from others, in a country built upon slave labor, heir to imperialist conquest, settled by religious sects so oppressive they were pushed out of first England and then Holland before landing here to oppress others.
I grew up in towns around which the wastes of coal-mining polluted waters. I later lived in towns created from the dredging of swamps, full of buildings conditioned by oil-fueled machines which suck from the air its moisture in the name of “comfort.”
I’ve lived in cities crowded with the poor, standing amongst them as the wealthy and “privileged” thumb electronic rectangles (manufactured by more impoverished people in other lands) to view photos of what other people had for lunch that day, driving past in automobiles the earth cannot sustain towards homes they convince themselves they “deserve.”
All of this in a country which sustains its power and wealth through war and economic sabotage, obliterating foreign markets, incinerating villages and towns full of people with slightly darker skin.
But the most incomprehensible thing of all? We seem to have convinced ourselves that this is as it should be, as it must be, and surprisingly sometimes, as it was meant to be. It’s natural, or inevitable, or even justified that there should be so much poverty and destruction in the world in order that some might live extravagantly, that some might have pretty trinkets and endless distractions, better food and cleaner air, happier children and safer streets, unlimited choice and unfettered travel, fitter bodies and more peaceful minds.
For some, it is impossible to be content with all the wonderful things society enjoys once they find out it is predicated on, that it requires, someone else’s misery. Something happens to some who no longer believe that one man’s happiness must mean another’s sorrow, one woman’s wealth must mean another’s poverty.
They walk away, not just from the suffering, but from all the benefits of a society founded on the suffering of others, refusing to accept the false truth into which they’re born, the skewed equation they are told to accept as the way it has to be. Le Guin’s story has an ending, but like the best of all stories, the ending is a different beginning.
She says it best (she always does):
“They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”